Very few things bring me as much joy as hearing one of the two-year-olds I work with appropriately say, "I feel frustrated." to one of their peers with their sweet, little arms folded and a couple of foot stomps.
Teaching self-regulation skills, in my opinion, is one of the single greatest gifts you can give a child. And self-regulation cannot be taught without being mindful and accepting of each emotion that comes up - the good and the bad.
I'm going to share the difference between emotions and feelings and why the difference matters, the neuroscience of emotional awareness and simple ways you can use this information to teach emotional self-regulation to the children in your life.
Emotions vs Feelings
First, a little on the difference between emotions and feelings. In simple terms, emotions are temporary and recognizable by facial expressions (happy, mad, sad, scared) where as feelings are more behind the scenes, long-term and drive our actions (hunger, love, fear). Emotions come before feelings. For example, a child may be scared to go to school (emotion) but overtime this can develop into worry (feeling).
However, let's be honest, it's not common language to teach a young child (or any other human) to say, "I am emoting sadness." over "I am feeling sad." Yet, it's important to know the difference between emotions and feelings so that you can recognize both in yourself as well as your child the difference between a temporary reaction with an easy recovery and a long-term, troublesome feeling that seems to always be under the surface.
And to take it one step further, one definition of "feel" is to be aware of something happening through physical sensation. As you or your child become more aware of what emotions feel like, it totally makes sense to say "I feel angry." in response to all the bodily sensations you are experiencing in that moment (increased heart rate, stomach ache, sweating, etc.).
The Neuroscience of Emotional Awareness
One of my favorite things to tell my students is the brain magic of labeling their emotions.
There have been studies (here's one) that have monitored brain activity when someone simply states what they are feeling (i.e. "I feel angry."). What we see is that the amygdala, the flight-fight-freeze part of the brain, lights up when we feel angry. Basically the brain gets the body ready for battle. Our heart rate increases, we experience an adrenaline burst and our hands get sweaty to increase our grip (Yes, really.). But when we are able to label the emotion ("I feel angry.") the lights go down on the amygdala and go up on the prefrontal cortex, our thinking brain. The brain literally moves from a state of reaction (survival mode) to response (decision-making mode), simply by stating what we are feeling.
This simple tool allows both children and adults to self-regulate and choose how to respond rather than react to the tough situation in front of them. And can keep their emotions from developing into underlying, constant feelings. Basically, brain magic.
There are a couple of other tools that can do this as well such as movement and breath. More on that later.
How to Teach Emotional Self-Regulation
So, how do we get to the point where our two-year-old (or high schooler, spouse, you name it) accurately labels her emotion in the midst of chaos and is able to self-regulate herself into bliss?
Three steps: Recognize, Accept & Respond.
You can help her recognize her emotions based on what’s going on in her head, heart and mind, teach her to accept each emotion as it is and then teach her how to respond. This isn't a quick fix. It's a mindset that creates a map for how you interact with emotions (yours and others) for a lifetime.
Step 1: Recognize
There are a handful of simple ways to teach young children how to recognize their emotions.
Label emotions for her. When you suspect she may be feeling angry, sad, etc. say something like “It seems like you might be feeling frustrated right now because your face looks like this (demonstrate).” or “I can tell you are feeling angry because of the tone of your voice.” You can also give her the language to express her emotion if you see she is bottling it up in some way (stomping, grunting, holding back tears). For example, “Try saying, ‘I’m feeling frustrated.’” Notice the difference between "I am frustrated." and "I'm feeling frustrated." This subtle difference will help teach her that her emotions do not define her.
Label your own emotions. Don’t hesitate to say how you are feeling at any given moment. ("I'm feeling frustrated that I didn't make it to the store today.") This teaches her that having emotions is normal while giving her permission to talk about her own emotions. One thing here, just as above, do not make her (or anyone else) responsible for your feelings. Say “I am feeling angry right now.” instead of “You are making me angry right now.”
Label emotions in stories. Another great way to keep this conversation going is to label emotions when reading books or watching movies. “Wow, he is so happy to get a new puppy!” or “How do you think she is feeling after her toy broke? How can you tell?”
Invite conversation around emotions. Another great tool to bring this all together is to carve out a time of your day where you talk about what went well and what didn’t go so well that day. For our family, we share one “smile” and one “frown” (you could also do a "high" and "low") as we eat dinner together. This is a great way to be able to share the tough stuff while also bringing light to what brings us joy.
Step 2: Accept
Equally as important as recognizing emotions is learning how to accept them for what they are. The biggest way to do this is to eliminate any form of punishment for tough emotions. Allow her to cry, get angry, or stomp off to her room and be alone for a minute, for example. If she wants to be near you, stay close to her when she is upset.
One great tool to use when she is expressing herself is to simply say “This is hard.” Allow her time to get through the emotional tunnel and when she has calmed down, help her problem solve (which is the next step).
Step 3: Respond
One thing I tell my own children as well as the students I work with is no emotion is bad (acceptance). Our response is what matters. For example, we can feel angry but we cannot hit people or break things. We can instead choose to say out loud “I am feeling angry!” or we can stomp our feet.
Here are some great tools to use to respond to tough emotions. Neuroscientists have found that each one of these methods has the ability to turn the flight-fight-freeze response off in the brain almost immediately. The key is to teach the tools when she is not upset and to not force her to do them when she is upset.
If you see she has used a tool, try helping her recognize the difference in how she feels. For example, “After you took a deep breath, I saw your face relax. It seems like you are feeling a little better now.” This can help her connect the tool to a positive outcome and be motivated to access the tool the next time she needs it.
What About Feelings?
As I mentioned earlier, feelings are usually more long-term, underlying drivers. You may notice that your child seems constantly worried or fearful. Typically, this is more based on a series of behaviors and not in-the-moment reactions or facial expressions. However, usually there are emotional reactions to certain stimuli.
I'll use the example of school worry as I did above. You may find that your child has an underlying fear or worry regarding school. At the same time, getting her to school in the morning usually comes with some emotional reactions to stimuli - you telling her to brush her teeth or get in the car.
First, use the same tools as above in regard to those big emotions. You may find that having that toolset will allow your child to cope with underlying feelings, as well. In addition, I would consider talking to your pediatrician. He or she can help determine if it's something that requires outside help. Usually the indicator for this is if it is life-altering in some way (i.e. she is missing school or you avoid social events, public places, etc.).
Many of the kids I work with are on the path to big, life-altering feelings. Some are in therapy and some are not. But having some additional mindfulness-based tools to help cope with those big feelings is what I do. Here's a little bit about how I can help.
I invite you to check out the free journaling guide, Lead and Follow; Learning to Dance with the Art and Science of Raising Humans, designed to help you uncover the root of your child's behavior challenges.